September 20, 2018

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Creature comforts

Two-day free conference explores our spiritual link to animals

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/10/2017 (348 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the middle of writing a theological book, university professor Arthur Walker-Jones was coping with the growing needs of an aging pet.

His eventual decision to euthanize his dog led him to wonder what his religious tradition could offer on the subject of the relationship between humans and animals.

“My research on animal studies started when I was doing a commentary on Psalms and our dog was getting old and at the same time the conversation in Canada was starting on euthanasia,” says the University of Winnipeg biblical studies professor, who also is the United Church of Canada research chair on contemporary theology.

“I took (the dog) to the vet and it took two needles and he struggled and it seemed he wasn’t ready to go,” says Walker-Jones on euthanizing the family pet.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/10/2017 (348 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the middle of writing a theological book, university professor Arthur Walker-Jones was coping with the growing needs of an aging pet.

His eventual decision to euthanize his dog led him to wonder what his religious tradition could offer on the subject of the relationship between humans and animals.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>University of Winnipeg professor Arthur Walker-Jones and local theologians and academics will be hosting a conference Oct. 13-14 on religion and animal rights titled Polar Bears, Ponies, and Pets. </p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

University of Winnipeg professor Arthur Walker-Jones and local theologians and academics will be hosting a conference Oct. 13-14 on religion and animal rights titled Polar Bears, Ponies, and Pets.

"My research on animal studies started when I was doing a commentary on Psalms and our dog was getting old and at the same time the conversation in Canada was starting on euthanasia," says the University of Winnipeg biblical studies professor, who also is the United Church of Canada research chair on contemporary theology.

"I took (the dog) to the vet and it took two needles and he struggled and it seemed he wasn’t ready to go," says Walker-Jones on euthanizing the family pet.

Walker-Jones brings together scholars and thinkers from a variety of religious traditions and academic disciplines to explore the connections between religion and animal rights at a conference Oct. 13 and 14 at the University of Winnipeg.

The title of the conference — Polar Bears, Ponies, Pets and Religion — attempts to address the variety of ways humans interact with animals, including loss of habitat, using animals for work, and our strong connection to pets, says Walker-Jones, organizer of the two-day free event.

"Polar bears are threatened by climate change... ponies are working animals, and our relationship to them is changing, and pets are often seen as members of our families," says Walker-Jones, who hasn’t adopted another dog after the death of his mixed-breed rescue dog Jojo.

Religious traditions generally focus on human behaviour and the treatment of people who are disadvantaged, but those concerns can’t be separated from the ethical treatment of all creatures, suggests conference presenter Christopher Hrynkow.

"If you’re looking for a just society, it would also be a healthy ecological world," says Hrynkow, who holds doctorates in ecological ethics and peace and conflict studies.

"Ecology is about relationships and seeing things connected."

For Christians, that connection is clearly laid out in the Bible, where the fate of humans and animals are intertwined, says conference presenter Jared Beverly, a doctoral student in biblical studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.

"When the (Hebrew) people mess up, it doesn’t simply affect them. Their fate is tied up with the fate of the land around them and the creatures around them," says Beverly in a telephone interview.

"Humans are intimately connected with the creatures around them. What we do matters."

Not only can human behaviour affect animals, but the treatment of animals also has an impact on human safety, says Beverly, who is studying animal imagery in the Old Testament book Song of Songs.

After hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, some people stayed in their flooded homes because emergency shelters would not take their pets.

"Human lives are dependent on the animals they live with," says Beverly. "During the recent natural disasters in southern American states, shelter policies have changed regarding (allowing) pets."

With North Americans spending billions on pet food and other animal-care products, promoting animal rights may come at the expense of basic human rights for people in other parts of the world, says Rev. Sheryl Johnson, a doctoral student in ethics.

"It’s not a black or white approach. How can we hold this in tension?" asks the Winnipeg native, who is studying at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

That tension also exists in how people of faith deal with scientific evidence for climate change, says Hrynkow. Science may show us the facts, but religions can offer a context and motivation for acting on the information, he says.

"Who’s good at talking about change? Maybe religions are part of that work," says Hrynkow, religion and culture professor at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan.

"A very important part of Christianity and ecology is telling stories."

brenda@suderman.com

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